Cigar Aficionado

Maker’s Mark—Proof Positive?

The first thing I did when I heard the unsettling news Monday morning was to run out to the liquor store and buy a 1.75-liter bottle of Maker's Mark—not because I needed a drink at 9:30 a.m., but because I wanted to secure some of the original proof Bourbon from Loretto, Kentucky, before it sold out.

In case you haven't heard: on Saturday Maker's Mark sent out emails to its legion of Ambassadors informing them that after more than 50 years that the company was changing the proof on its Bourbon from 90 to 84 (or 45 percent alcohol by volume to 42 percent).

Given my well-documented love affair with this Bourbon that is made with wheat in place of rye, I immediately worked through the familiar stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and buying a bottle. Then I decided I needed to put in a call to the source itself to get the whole story. So I called Rob Samuels, who has served as the COO of Maker's Mark since his father, William Samuels Jr., stepped down as CEO in 2011.

Monday night at 6:30, I spoke to Rob, who had spent a hectic few days talking to reporters and friends of the brand, trying to quell concerns that the whisky (Maker's Mark's prefers to spell it the Scottish way-without the "e") would be changing.

Maker's had been a small brand, known mostly in Kentucky, until the 1980s, when it began growing by about 8.5 percent a year and became ubiquitous across America as well as being well-known in many foreign markets. The problem, Rob says, started about 18 months ago, when popularity started creating shortages. They managed down inventories, eliminating distribution in certain countries, but still the top sizes were not available in some markets during November and December, the company's two biggest months. "This is different than anything we've ever experienced."

Maker's Mark has been on a tear lately to make more Bourbon by running the distillery even on Sundays (unusual in Kentucky) and adding more warehouses to store the liquor for its six- to eight-year maturation. Several months ago they started looking at other ways to solve the problem, while "maintaining the taste profile and each step of the process exactly today as it has always been. This was the alternative to meet demand." Lowering alcohol content stretches volumes, because it is achieved it by adding more water during bottling. Maker's Mark and almost all whiskeys are diluted to some extent-the minimum proof being 80, or 40 percent alcohol. But naturally the option of further watering down Maker's has not sat well with the many alarmed bartenders and consumers who have weighed in since the announcement. Rob says, however, that concerned calls have been fewer than the ones received when shelves were empty.

bottle shot maker's mark.

After my own concerned call I come away feeling a bit better about the situation than I did immediately. (Although, I will closely guard what 90-proof Maker's I do have.)

First of all, Maker's deserves credit for full transparency as a number of brands have changed formulations in the past without tipping their hands, letting consumers find out by careful reading of the label rather than by corporate announcement. For instance, in 2005, Cardhu, a single-malt Scotch whisky, temporarily became a blend of malts built around Cardhu with a subtle change of the label to read "pure malt." The move came after the parent company had been faced with shortages when Cardhu became so sought after that it couldn't keep up with its demand as a single malt as well as an important component in the vastly popular blend Johnnie Walker. The result of the change was an outcry among whisky purists, and Cardhu—under any name—was taken off American shelves until it returned as a single malt in 2010. It also caused the Scotch Whisky Association to change its labeling rules to describe such marriages of single malts as "blended malts" and not "vatted" or "pure" malts, terms that had been widely used.

Another example such instance came when Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 dropped its own proof from 90 to 86 proof in 1987 and then to 80 proof in 2002 without any fanfare. The reason, the company said, was that modern drinkers preferred a less alcoholic drink. Any savings from dilution, it claimed, was cancelled out by the expense of having to change the label—hmmm. Wild Turkey also recently introduced a lower-strength rye (81 proof) at the same time as shortages of its 101 rye were being felt. The jury is out as to whether this will be permanent, but it is a change that has been very clear to consumers as the new version is boldly labeled Wild Turkey 81 Rye Whiskey.

Anyway, my first question was: would lower proof result in a lower quality Maker's Mark? Predictably, Rob says, "No." He says the distillery went through repeated tasting tests to make sure that they could maintain the flavor we all know as Maker's Mark at the diluted strength. Maker's, made since 1954 at the National Historic Landmark Burks' Distillery, is essentially a handmade product, distilled at low proof (110) to preserve flavor. Batches are made in lots of 20 barrels, which are circulated around the warehouses to take advantage of the best climates at different times in the aging process. In 2002, when it doubled capacity, it took pains to maintain its small-batch ethos by replicating the existing 19th century equipment, not enlarging it.

Citing that commitment to consistency, Rob adamantly states, "The taste is exactly the same as it's always been." But what else would he say? And since I haven't tasted the diluted product I can't weigh in as of yet. (The new Maker's, which first appeared this week, will roll out over the next month in different areas as the need arises.) "We would ask consumers," says Rob, "before they judge to taste." And, of course, I will judge (and in this space) as soon as I get my hands on some.

My next question came from the cheapskate in me. "If the whisky is diluted will there be a break in price?" Rob says, "No," although he notes that the price has risen continuously over the years and there will be no increase this year. So, depending on your accounting method, I guess that can be taken as a victory of sorts.

But what about the future? Can he envision a time when capacity rises or demand slackens when Maker's will return to the original 90-proof strength? Again, "No." Drink up, boys. Abstaining won't do anything to bring back the original.

Then I started to fret that the company might—assuming all goes well at the 84-proof strength reduction—consider further reductions. Not to worry, counters Rob. At the same time they were testing at the 42 percent levels, they also tried 40 and 41 percent versions of Maker's. The panels were able to discern a difference at that dilution, so they were deemed unacceptable.

"Essentially, the most important thing we do is to maintain consistency year after year." Here's hoping that the proof is in the whisky.




"This Bourbon is my number 2 choice behind Woodford reserve, so suffice to say I've had a bit. Anyway i was glad to see them respond to the "fans" and not tamper with the recipe" —June 15, 2013 20:03 PM
"I thin some decision is being made by some quality and the cigar 42 x 6 size is better than the other size." —April 21, 2013 06:26 AM
"If I want my Maker's Mark watered down I'll throw a couple ice cubes in it and wait. Imagine you order your favorite cigar in a 42 x 6 and you receive a 38 x 5. What happened to integrity in business practices. This is a black mark on Maker's Mark." —March 26, 2013 17:09 PM
"Who knows maybe the 84 proof will become as collectible as the extinct 101 proof Gold wax/Gold label, or the 95 proof Black wax/Black label." —March 12, 2013 22:07 PM
"Well, I went in yesterday looking for my favorite scotch and came across a batch of the 42 apv stuff (versus the 45 apv). So, considering that this is now the "limited edition" batch, I decided to get a bottle (Caveat: it was only available on 1.5 L bottle). I tried it last night - very good flavor. The Alcohol initial kick was not subdued and the flavor was excellent. Smooth without the itchiness that rye usually has. As a side note, I prefer the Maker's 46, but this one was not at all bad. I do believe that if Rob Samuels would have not been upfront about the change (much respect to him for that), the great majority of the customers would have not been able to tell the difference and still enjoy a high quality product. Now, I'll have to ration it - only one bottle in my stock and no more of it being produced. :)" —February 23, 2013 08:28 AM
"Well, now Maker's has responded to public outcry by reversing their decision to go 84 proof.(Check it out at: http://www.makersmark.com/#!/live-feed/news/34-you-spoke-we-listened.) Ultimately, I think the get high marks for class. But now I've got a stockpile of the 90 proof that I bought for my bomb shelter. Still would like to have tasted the low proof against the original. Did anyone get any?" —February 17, 2013 16:21 PM
"Terrible absolutely terrible! This move will make me stop drinking this weaseled down product " —February 17, 2013 15:47 PM
"Very shocking to say the least at this MM's decision. I can't believe someone would sacrifice quality for quantity. Especially an established company like MM. Bad business move. " —February 16, 2013 11:32 AM
"Pappy is very difficult to find, yet the quality remains. Sure they could've diluted it to keep-up with demand but chose not to. And I take my hat off to them. I prefer to add my own water to whisky." —February 15, 2013 01:37 AM
"-----Original Message----- From: Rob Samuels [mailto:rob@makersmark.com] Sent: Saturday, February 09, 2013 5:54 PM To: pdaniels@wi.rr.com Subject: A message for our Ambassadors Dear Maker's MarkR Ambassador, Lately we've been hearing from many of you that you've been having difficulty finding Maker's Mark in your local stores. Fact is, demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we're running very low on supply. We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years, nor that demand for Maker's Mark would grow even faster. We wanted you to be the first to know that, after looking at all possible solutions, we've worked carefully to reduce the alcohol by volume (ABV) by just 3%. This will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker's Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity. We have both tasted it extensively, and it's completely consistent with the taste profile our founder/dad/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr., created nearly 60 years ago. We've also done extensive testing with Maker's Mark drinkers, and they couldn't tell a difference. Nothing about how we handcraft Maker's Mark has changed, from the use of locally sourced soft red winter wheat as the flavor grain, to aging the whisky to taste in air-dried American white oak barrels, to rotating our barrels during maturation, to hand-dipping every bottle in our signature red wax. In other words, we've made sure we didn't screw up your whisky. By the way, if you have any comments or questions, as always, we invite you to drop us a line at rob@makersmark.com or bill@makersmark.com. Thanks for your support. And if you've got a little time on your hands, come down and see us at the distillery. Sincerely, Rob Samuels Chief Operating Officer Ambassador-in-Chief From: Patricia A. Daniels <pdaniels@wi.rr.com> Date: February 10, 2013 5:23:01 AM EST To: Bill <bill@makersmark.com> Subject: Re: RE: A message for our Ambassadors So the loyal customers get a lesser product so you can make more money? That says a lot about the distillery and the people running it. Sad. From the desk of Patricia A. Daniels From: Bill [mailto:bill@makersmark.com] Sent: Monday, February 11, 2013 2:25 PM To: Patricia A. Daniels Subject: RE: A message for our Ambassadors Patricia, Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts regarding our recent announcement. We always appreciate open and honest conversation about Maker’s Mark, and we’ve gotten plenty of feedback, both supportive and otherwise. In order to respond to everybody quickly, please allow me to offer several thoughts that might answer most of the questions we’re hearing. And by the way, I asked Rob if I could write this response since many people have wondered if I’m on board with the decision to lower the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level. I am, and here’s why. First, it’s important to understand that our primary focus now and for the past 50 years hasn’t changed. It’s product quality and consistency, batch-to-batch, year-to-year, with the primary measure of that consistency being the unique Maker’s Mark taste profile. That’s all that truly matters in the end. Since we’re a one-brand company that’s never purchased bourbon from other distillers when supplies are short, forecasting is very difficult. Over the years, our one variable that helps us avoid market shortages has been the age of the whisky in the Maker’s bottle. That range is between five years nine months and seven years. Because Maker’s Mark is aged to taste, Dad never put a specific age statement on the bottle. It wasn’t the age that mattered; it was the taste, the quality and the consistency. Some people are asking why we didn’t just raise the price if demand is an issue. We don’t want to price Maker’s Mark out of reach. Dad’s intention when he created this brand was to make good-tasting bourbon accessible and to bring more fans into the fold, not to make it exclusive. And, with regard to the price, the value of Maker’s Mark isn’t set by alcohol volume. It’s about the quality of the recipe and ingredients that go into it, all the handcrafting that goes into the production and how it tastes. Some of you have questioned how we reduce the alcohol content. The fact is, other than barrel-strength bourbons, all bourbons are cut with water to achieve the desired proof for bottling. This is a natural step in the bourbon-making process. Maker’s Mark has always been made this way and will continue to be made this way. As we looked at potential solutions to address the shortage, we agreed again that the most important thing was whether it tastes the same. The distillery made up different batches that Rob and I tested every evening over the course of a month. Every batch at 42% ABV had the same taste profile that we’ve always had. Then, we validated our own tastings with structured consumer research and the Tasting Panel at the distillery, who all agreed: there’s no difference in the taste. For those of you who have questioned if the supply problem is real, I can assure you that it is. While not every part of the country has seen shortages yet, many have, and the demand is continuing to grow at a pace we’ve never before experienced. While we are investing today to expand capacity for the future, by producing 42% ABV Maker’s Mark we’ll be able to better meet our ongoing supply issues without compromising the taste. Ultimately, all I can ask is that you reserve judgment until you actually taste the whisky, like I did. If you can make it down to the distillery, we’re doing tastings every day with the 42% ABV whisky to give you a first-hand opportunity to try it for yourself. If you can’t make it to the distillery, please give it a try when it gets to your city. And please write me back at that point. I want to hear what you think. In the meantime, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write. It shows that you care about Maker’s Mark, and that’s what we’ve been striving for over the past 50 years. I hope you’ll give us the chance to continue earning that devotion and allow us to prove that we didn’t screw up your whisky. All the best. Bill Samuels, Jr. Chairman Emeritus Ambassador-at-Large Come on Bill, who do you think you're fooling here? I'm not an ignorant twenty-something that would believe ANY of what you're telling me. I've been around for awhile, know about greed, know about why customers form loyalties and know this is all about you making more money. I started drinking Maker's Mark for several reasons, i.e. the taste, the alcoholic content, the ambiance of the company and the history of the product. First of all, it's important for you to understand that your primary focus now and for the past 50 years HAS changed. That's why you made this poor decision for goodness sake! If you are interested in product quality and consistency, batch-to-batch, year-to-year, with the primary measure of that consistency being the unique Maker's Mark taste profile, then why did you change it? It is obvious these areas are NOT your real focus now, are they? The decision was based on income and profit. You keep talking about taste, quality and consistency. How the heck is adding more water to your product going to improve any of these aspects of your bourbon? It's not. But it will allow you to sell more bourbon at the cost of losing your base clientele who brought you to the level of notoriety you currently enjoy. Your decision to keep prices the same (with a watered-down version of the original), rather than raise prices on the original, may very well increase your low-end customer base, but probably at the cost of your true high-end customer base. So, you really haven't done yourself any favors other than, perhaps, make your bourbon more accessible as a rail drink. If you, Rob, your structured consumer research (whoever the heck that is!?) and Tasting Panel (whoever the heck they are?!) agree that there is no change in a product that has been changed, you've all lost your common sense and taste buds. I guess money can do that, though, eh!? Well, just like Coke and Nabisco have done in the past with disastrous results, you just keep kidding yourselves that your loyal customers will just fall in line like lemmings and drink your watered-down crap. I won't, my husband won't, my son won't and everyone we've introduced to your product soon will not as we intend to market your poor decision with them all, and anyone else who will listen. We do intend, however, to introduce them to other good bourbons that respect their loyal customer base by keeping the product to a high standard and not insulting them with this type of explanation for a monetary-based decision. I won't have a chance to tell you what the new product tastes like as I have many other GOOD bourbons to choose from and spend my money on. Sad that your greed has ruined a great distillery and product. Definitely a "race to the bottom" you may very well win. Could be the best tasting rail bourbon served at the bars in the future! Pated From the desk of Patricia A. Daniels " —February 14, 2013 12:08 PM
"He can say what he wants but this wasn't a decision based on quality. It was based on the bottom line and to me (a resident of Kentucky) that's sad. I'm reminded of the Pappy Van Winkle quote: "We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must. But always fine bourbon." There's a man who wouldn't water down his bourbon to sell more of it... And they still don't today. Best of luck MM but it says a lot about your priorities. " —February 13, 2013 23:05 PM